Pressure is mounting in South Carolina as the Ron Rivera era will be entering its eighth season.
With a new owner in town and a team ushering out the old guard such as centre Ryan Kalil, defensive-end Julius Peppers and linebacker Thomas Davis. Change halts for no one and especially for a coaching staff which only won one game last season past 4th November last season.
However, the Panthers did start last season 6-2, and in each of their losses bar two they were within one score of winning. On paper, the Panthers have one of the most solid teams in the NFL. I have no doubt that head coach Ron Rivera, defensive coordinator Eric Washington and offensive coordinator Norv Tuner can formulate successful game plans, but theory and execution are two different things.
As seen by the Panthers collapse last season, Rivera can put his guys in a position to win- it’s all about execution from there.
Superman doesn’t work alone
After the shock retirement of star quarterback Andrew Luck, the Carolina Panthers have to do everything they can to ensure Cam Newton stays healthy and firing on all cylinders this season. Newton has suffered a litany of injuries during his career, the most significant being a nagging issue in his throwing shoulder which was semi-responsible for the Panthers collapse down the stretch this past season.
Newton was playing some great football under new offensive coordinator Norv Turner before the shoulder injury. Throwing for a combined 1,893 yards and 13 touchdowns (both in the air and on the ground) before re-aggravating his shoulder against Pittsburgh in week 10. Reaching the heights of the 2015 season now seem impossible for Newton, but that’s okay. Players change and evolve, we may see a more conservative and efficient Cam Newton this season with more checkdowns to Christian McCaffrey and underneath routes to D.J. Moore. Newton remaining healthy is the main thing.
Running-back McCaffrey looks to cement his place as one of the elite offensive weapons in the NFL. McCaffrey had 1,098 rushing and 867 receiving yards with a combined total of 13 touchdowns.
To go alongside Newton and McCaffrey, wide receivers D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel look to build on their already promising careers, complimented by the veteran leadership of Torrey Smith and Chris Hogan. Tight-end Greg Olsen returns for what could be his farewell tour, staying healthy will be a top priority for Olsen who has had the past two seasons robbed from him due to a broken foot.
Carolina’s offence last season was somewhat of a toothless tiger (or a Panther for that matter). Pro football reference had the Panther D rated 19th in the league last season. In response to an uncharacteristic down season, Ron Rivera and GM Marty Hurney gave much attention to the defence this past off-season.
Whereas the Panthers boast Superman on offence, they signed a superhero aficionado on the defensive line Gerald McCoy. McCoy is one of the premier inside d-lineman in the NFL. Having enjoyed a tenure in Tampa Bay filled with Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections, McCoy was let go by the Buccaneers and quickly picked up by the Panthers. A smart move by the Panthers, making a division rival weaker whilst strengthening a position of need. The acquisition of veteran Bruce Irvin from the Atlanta Falcons achieves something similar, only from the edge instead of inside.
Another new face on the D-line is first round draft prick Brian Burns. Burns is a pass-rushing specialist who can play as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 and also as a defensive end in a 4-3. The ex-Florida State man has shone this preseason registering four sacks in three appearances. A 3-4 defensive front seven of Brian Burns, Mario Addison, Kawann Short, McCoy and Bruce Irvin rushing the passer with Luke Kuechly and Shaq Thompson solidifying the unit puts Carolina’s defence among the elite in the NFL.
The secondary for the Panthers does not reach the heights of their front seven, however, there are bright spots such as sophomore corner back Adoree Jackson. Jackson possesses fantastic speed and range to match his cocky, confident persona. Veteran’s Eric Reid and Tre Boston are at safety, both players are not game-changers but they are consist NFL starters.
The Carolina Panthers are heading into the upcoming season as Super Bowl contenders. The roster boasts a healthy mix of young, exciting talent and veteran leadership. However, in a tough NFC South and an even tougher NFC Conference, things can go sour easily. With this in mind, I believe that Ron Rivera and his coaching staff are experienced enough to use last season’s collapse as a stepping stone in the ever growing road to success.
To state the obvious, if Carolina can keep their star quarterback healthy then the sky is the limit for this franchise.
Likelihood of making the playoffs: Very Likely